The Continental Club is dim in that dive bar way that makes you wonder whether the lights are actually on or actually off. Who ever really knows. Grandpa over there in the belt buckle doesn’t. Maybe he was Sheriff once but that’s history now. It’s Saturday night in Texas in the early fall. South Congress Avenue in Austin is lit and The Continental Club is evidently open.
The lady behind the bar is busy digging out ice, fetching bottles from the fridge and gassing the soda hose for a steady stream of drinkers. She’s simultaneously cranky and affectionate. She might as well be deaf too. Shout all you will over the din; all she’ll do is wince and move her ear closer.
The shelves of booze behind her are glinting like rhinestones. A tangle of fairy lights webbing high on the bar’s back wall marries with a busy nest of framed photos that features everybody from Elvis to Kinky Friedman. Every time you line up for a beer at the Continental, it’s a museum experience.
I dump a dollar bill in the tip jar. My abstractions of Texas are so grotesque I keep waiting for Jerry Jeff Walker to walk in. Or the drunk splayed on the blistered Bagdad Cemetery grass in Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’m stricken with the unshakable impression it's always 1974 in Texas.
The Continental Club site was a laundromat in the 1940s. It’s also been a jazz club, topless bar (as some parlance goes), disco and tavern. Legend has it, once upon a time, the site was distinguishable by a happy hour that began at 6am and finished at 8pm. You could say that sounds much more sensible than any happy hour that begins at 6am and ends at 9pm. But the seedier element that gravitated to South Congress Avenue for what was formerly a more red-lit vibe has since been ghosted by hip shops, music venues, restaurants and gentrification’s continual rumble about curing everything.
If you want live country music, it’s not hard to find at the Continental. Artists like Junior Brown and Dale Watson have anchored themselves in some of the legendary residencies the venue has made a big part of its name on. The Continental is also recognised as a halfway house for many acts on course for bigger stages - not to mention all the others that essentially wind up missing persons. Even acts like The Replacements and Sonic Youth plugged in before their reputations preceded them.
Country act The Tender Things, the first support band tonight, moves into the home stretch of ‘I Ain’t Living Long Like This’. Houston singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell gets the songwriting credit for the song but Waylon Jennings scored his 11th Number One country single with the song in 1980. Waylon Jennings’ somewhat brawnier version perfectly captures the guts of outlaw country by sounding like it’s on the run from itself. Crowell’s lyrics, evocative through the imagery of jailhouses, Houston, lawmen and Texas Ruby, endow the song with a gung-ho spirit that makes you want to smash a Lone Star bottle over your head just to settle down. I hear four different bands cover it in Texas (and Margot Price in Melbourne a month later). Right now, The Tender Things sound like they're getting chased by the song too. Like fugitives, is how the band plays its shack-levelling version.
Out on South Congress Avenue after the first band, the sweetness of the balmy air is giddying. There are some teenagers queuing at the window outside Amy’s Ice-Creams and carloads of young party wolves are making a scramble of a queue at Home Slice Pizza. At this time, Democratic congressman Beto O’Rourke is challenging Senator Ted Cruz for Senate in Texas. His orations have sparked a dewy optimism in progressives and his bromance with Willie Nelson has turned the stomachs of hard-booted Texas conservatives. I inch a little further along South Congress and run into a 20-something man with neck tatts and gauged earlobes. He wants 35 cents for the bus and wants to know if I’ve been punched in the eye. He says a homeless man broke his jaw in two places a while back. The last thing he says is to take care and that Austin is a cool city.
Outside the Continental Club, the sign, a famous neon beacon for the nocturnals inching up and down the avenue, enhances the street’s groggy late-night atmosphere. A little way across the road, one of the Continental’s bedfellows, the Austin Motel, looks like a certifiable bed bug aviary. A bedbug aviary deserving of five-star status by virtue of its neon alone. You needn’t be a pervert, either, to observe that the Austin Motel’s vertical signage looks squarely like a phallic symbol.
The last band tonight is country-soul act Jonathan Tyler and the Northern Lights. The Dallas act has a propensity for Stonesy interludes and Tyler’s leathery vocals sit somewhere between early 1970s Rod Stewart and early 2000s Kings of Leon. A drunk woman in farmer overalls has clambered on stage - with much-needed help - to dance now. She watches the band members communing tightly in denim, tatts and hats. They are backdropped by a red stage curtain - badged with a large Continental sign and star - as they heat up the late-night slot.
Austin, sometimes described as “a college town”, is a good place to run a motel with a neon phallic symbol for a sign. After the bands, people gradually start to amble back out the Continental’s large red doors. I talk to two drunk professors from Waco about the band. Then I listen to them talk a little bit about Waco and David Koresh. One of them is too drunk to drink but she’s adamant it’s time to go dancing at the next bar. The idea that Austin - with its progressive liberal character and faded murals of Willie Nelson and Janis Joplin tattooed in its architecture - is surrounded by Texas doesn’t sound so funny outside the Continental right now. At some point, the professors remark they prefer the people in Austin to the ones back home in Waco. They particularly dislike David Koresh. That’s about where it all ends.